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This key federal program to help prisoners get an education was stopped in 1994. It’s time to bring it back

Until 1994, the Federal Pell Grant program funded prisoners hoping to get a college degree or certificate. Now, activists and politicians are calling for it to be reinstated as a way to help people secure jobs after they leave prison.

This key federal program to help prisoners get an education was stopped in 1994. It’s time to bring it back
[Illustration: FC]

In 2016, 626,000 people were released from prison in the U.S. The vast majority of them are still struggling to find work: Among formerly incarcerated people, the unemployment rate is over 27%, compared to around 5% for the rest of the population. Bias and prejudice against people with prison time on their resumes plays a significant role in this disparity. A number of initiatives, like Ban the Box, which abolishes the requirement that job applicants self-report criminal records, have emerged in recent years to chip away at that obstacle.

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But there’s another barrier to employment that starts to build up when people are in prison: Lack of access to education. According to a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice, most people in prison (around 64%) are qualified to enroll in a post-secondary education program. Before being incarcerated, they attained either a high school diploma or a GED, but once in prison, most found themselves unable to advance. Only around 7% of incarcerated people receive a certificate from a college or trade school while serving time.

This is a huge problem for people leaving prison and trying to find work. By 2020, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 65% of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education. If people in prison are not given the opportunities to meet these requirements before they return home, they will continue to face a steep challenge to getting a job–which is one of the strongest guarantees that someone won’t return to prison.

The Vera Institute report calls for a reinstatement of the part of the Federal Pell Grant Program that, until it was discontinued in 1994, ensured that people in prison could access post-secondary education. When it was introduced in 1972, the Federal Pell Grant Program began providing financial support for low-income undergrad students, and it still does that today. But it also funded postsecondary education programs within prisons, and by the early 1990s, inmates in nearly 1,300 facilities could gain access to a degree or certificate. Tough-on-crime policies in the mid-90s, though, brought about the revocation of incarcerated students’ access to Pell Grants.

The Vera Institute, in this report, makes the case for reintroducing the grants for incarcerated people. If 50% of eligible prisoners participated in a Pell Grant-funded education program, the Vera Institute projects that employment rates among those returning prisoners would increase by 10% on average. This increase in employment would also raise the combined wages of all formerly incarcerated people by $45.3 million. “The benefits are not only for the people leaving prison, but for the communities that they’re returning to,” says Nick Turner, president of the Vera Institute.

And on top of bringing more money back into communities affected by incarceration, funding in-prison education would save states money. Because keeping someone in prison is expensive, and people are less likely to re-commit if they have work, overall incarceration costs across states would decline by $365.8 million combined.

Reinstating Pell Grants for incarcerated people, as the Vera Institute calls for, is an idea that’s been gaining steam for a while. In his presidency, Barack Obama introduced the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, which funded 67 educational institutions to provide degrees or certificates to around $5,000 incarcerated students. Senators on both sides of the aisle have expressed interest in renewing Pell Grants for incarcerated people at a broader scale. And it was a demand of the prisoner strikes that occurred around the country in the fall of 2018.

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“If we’re truly committed to ending mass incarceration and securing justice for all, the lifting of the ban on Federal Pell Grants is one of the best ways to do so,” Turner says.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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